Junior Johnson Racers, There Were Two!

Dargan Watts and Jr Johnson of Florence

I especially enjoyed this racing story and the history it includes. We are grateful to Dargan for the photos, records, and stories he has shared with so many of we family and friends of racers. What treasures!

Many only know of one Junior Johnson but this is the story of two and I hope you'll find it as interesting as I did. Granted I'm prejudiced as one is my uncle, but the story is of two racers that have now gone on but led many others to the sport of racing.

I love that each had their own very distinct personality and did things in their own way. I know that my Uncle Jr Johnson did what he loved and that was racing. Did he do it for notoriety?  Heck no, he did not! He did his best and didn't give a rip about all of the 'hoopla' that comes with winning. He, shall I say, was a true southern gentleman and smiled through it all. Fans love winners especially good-natured winners and he was one of them win or lose. Notice I said fans, other drivers weren't so fond of him winning week after week. Hey, that's racing!

I'll say one more thing he was the smoothest driver I've ever seen in my life. He could win with ease and although traveling at a high speed did so most times looking like he was coasting on a Sunday afternoon. He was a great driver!

I remember Dale Earnhardt driving the uncles' cars when he started out and those were some good times. I can't say that he drove smooth, but will say he kept the suspense high on the nights he did drive some in his early career on our local tracks.

Uncle Jr and his brother (my other Uncle) Cecil were great drivers and race car builders as well as my brothers in later years. Chippy grew up at Uncle Junior's shop and as daddy once said, "That boy is good at what he does that's for sure". Big named racers wanted him and my other brother Steve to come work with them, but they like their uncles loved home and family. They still do some work around cars, but things have changed. Racing isn't what it used to be by any means. Sadly it like most sports has become a money-making venture that seems to have taken over the true racing of the past. My cousin Judy was very involved in the racing and all that was included. She could probably write a book!

I would be remiss if I didn't add one other member of the Johnson racing team his name is 'Cat'. Now that is a character who might as well have been a part of the family. The stories he could tell.

Friends of the family too numerous to name were also very important parts of our extended family. To this day these friends are still considered family.

We all miss the uncles, my dad and our cousin (Junior's son) Slick as he passed away from a wreck at Daytona. Now the other family members still build and race go-carts. Maybe one day I'll get Chuck to tell us something about that. He a cousin and other cousins that flat grew up in the shop and learned from the best! All have stories to tell.

Excuse me please as I got long-winded talking about the family. I love family! Now for the real story from a very accomplished writer and historian Mr. Dargan Watts.....

Junior Johnson and the first race car he ever drove


Julius David Johnson, Jr. - Written by Dargan Watts
OCALA, Fla. – Julius David Johnson and Robert Glenn Johnson probably never met, but the two men did have some things in common. Julius and his wife, Goldie, had twin sons and one of them was named Julius David Johnson, Jr. They had two other sons, one older than the twins and one younger. Robert Glenn and his wife Lara Belle had seven children and one of the sons was named Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr.

Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. was born in Ingle Hollow, N.C. and Julius David Johnson, Jr. was born in Horry County, S. C. Both juniors became race car drivers, and both were very good at it. The Junior Johnson from North Carolina started his career in 1953 as a former convicted moonshiner and recorded 50 Grand National wins over a 14-year career. After retiring as a driver, he became a fulltime car owner, recorded 119, and won six national titles. Cale Yarborough won three and Darrell Waltrip won three.

Both juniors had sons who raced, but Julius David had a younger brother (Cecil) who was a terrific driver as well. His twin brother, Leo, was at most of racing events and his older brother, Carl, attended the races on occasion. The South Carolina Johnson farmed with his dad and brothers until they moved to the Ebenezer Community in Florence County around 1954, and that’s when J. D., as we will refer to him, got the racing bug shortly thereafter. He, with help from a friend, Clarence Matthews, started racing at Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Sumter, Charleston, Cooper River and Ashwood. He also ventured into North Carolina, gaining experience and building a reputation as an excellent car builder and driver. It didn’t take long for the word to get around about how good he was as a builder, so he started building cars for other teams as well. He ran in the Limited Sportsman as well as the modified divisions of NASCAR.

I got to know both Junior Johnsons, but the Florence South Carolina Junior and I worked together more, so I got to know the family more. I was privileged to be around Junior and his brother Cecil as drivers and car owners and Juniors twin, Leo was at most of the racing events. Then, along came Slick or legally known as Julius David Johnson III. Junior was a person who met no strangers and if someone he had never met would walk up and start a conversation, it wouldn’t be long before one would think they had known one another all their lives. He was friends with all of the drivers, car owners and helpers. He was in the racing business to make a living, but if another team was in trouble mechanically, he was the first one to try to help. If a team had a handling problem, the door to the Johnson shop was always open and his frame machine was kept in use nearly full time working on race cars owned by others.

He had an open door for all of the competitors who were at Darlington Raceway. His machine shop was right there for all to use and many cars that met with famed Darlington wall were repaired at the Johnson shop.

Back in the 60’s Junior was at Sumter Speedway, while Jimmy Hatchell was at another track with a second car and Slick was in a third car at another track. It started raining before the program at Sumter got underway, and at the time, I was doing a feature story on a particular driver every week, so I felt that was the perfect time to get Junior in my car and ask him some questions about his life as a fulltime racer. He cautioned me that if it continued to rain, he would leave me in favor of heading 100 miles north to Dillon Speedway where it was powder dry. I assured him it was going to stop raining in Sumter and we would get the race in, but he kept his hand on the door handle and let me know several times that he had to move on to Dillon.

Finally, the rain ceased to fall, and Junior unloaded his car, qualified for the race and finished first.

In the early 60’s, NASCAR started the Late Model Sportsman division, and all the area independent tracks followed suit, racing later model cars that were manufactured at least four years prior. Many of the independent tracks were offering purses that were higher than those that were NASCAR sanctioned, mainly because there was no point fund nor sanctioning fee. For several years, NASCAR would revoke the license of any driver caught competing on any independent facility, so teams had to decide one way or the other.

By the mid-60’s NASCAR was challenged, and it was decided that the drivers and car owners were independent contractors and the sanctioning body could not impede a person from making a living, so it was a new ballgame. For J D (Junior) and his brother, Cecil, who actually ran his own team, could race when and where they wanted. Cecil was still a fulltime farmer and only raced when the farm work was done. Junior brought a young man by the name of Jimmy Hatchell on board as a driver of one of the sister cars and this gave the Junior Johnson Racing team a double and sometimes a triple whammy on the field. Starting on Thursday, it was Columbia Speedway, Friday, it was Hartsville and on Saturday, it was where the most money was. The Johnson group would roll into a track expecting to take home first place money, so in order to do that, each driver would go in a different direction on Saturday and more often than not, Junior and Hatchell would each bring home the top prize money. Then, on Sunday, it was a Charleston area track, and sometimes into North Carolina where the blue laws were not against Sunday racing.

Junior probably could have made a good living if he had decided to join the Grand National Tour with NASCAR, or even the National Late Model Sportsman circuit, but he was satisfied to be his own boss and was not a lover of motel rooms. He felt he would have to go out and try to recruit sponsors to help with the expenses to run several nights a week across the country and if he had sponsors, he would be told when and where he had to race, so the reason he seldom had any advertising on any of his cars, is because he just simply didn’t want to be obligated to anyone.

After driving for Matthews, Johnson went on his own and built his first car in a shop located in his back yard. His young son, J D III, also known as “Slick” was his helper in the shop and in 1962, at the ripe old age of 14, Slick built his first race engine. A couple of years later, the 16-year-old became a driver after his parents signed the proper paperwork, allowing him to do so. Now Junior had his car, Slick in a “learner” and his brother, Cecil, who raced only when the crops didn’t need his attention.

In the meantime, Junior’s wife, Virginia, was raising two daughters, Joyce and Judy plus working fulltime as a department manager at Sears. Slick later became a fulltime partner with his father in the shop and headed up the machine shop along with racing three to four nights a week.
Junior not only built his cars from top to bottom, he was becoming more of a name in the state of South Carolina than the other “Junior” in North Carolina. All three of his cars and drivers were racing as often as possible and chalking up wins and track championships all over the Carolinas and Georgia. Other than Junior and Slick in the shop and Hatchell handling the driving chores on one of the cars, the Johnsons depended on other family members and friends to help. Chippy Johnson helped in the machine shop and traveled with one of the cars as well as raced one of the cars while John Hare was there to help in various ways, but mainly handled the framework and kept the cars sleek and professional looking. Of course, the icon of the Johnson team from 1961 until 1995 was Allen Cooper who always wore a Caterpillar baseball cap that had across the front in big letters, “CAT”. I knew “Cat” for 50 years before I knew he had any other name.

Johnson, was approached by many track promoters who wanted to “rent” one of his cars for a marquee driver to challenge the regulars on a given night, and Junior would accommodate them for a set sum of money. That list of drivers is a “Who’s Who” in racing, Including Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Lee Roy Yarborough, Morgan Shepherd, Sam Ard and Darel Dieringer, to name a few.

Even with “renting” his car to various tracks, Johnson himself recorded 511 wins and 17 track titles. I was unable to gather the records for Hatchell but I know it was more than eight track titles. The records are incomplete for Slick, but Tim Bryant took over the #1 usually driven by Junior and won three track titles in one year.

Slick entered the Cup series in 1979 and ran two races for independent owners and two more races in a car owned, financed and built by the Johnson family. He finished 13th and 10th in the family owned car. In 1980, the young driver competed in 18 races and was in the top 10 on five occasions. He finished fourth in the Rookie of The Year balloting and was the top finishing true independent. He ran a limited Cup schedule through 1987. He competed in one ARCA event in 1989 and finished 10th. The following year, disaster struck the Johnson family as Slick was involved in a wreck in the ARCA race at Daytona. His injuries were so severe that he died two days later, nine days before his 42nd birthday.

Junior lost interest in auto racing and turned to building and maintaining Go-Karts for two of his grandsons. He was just as good at building the Go-Karts as he was the powerful race cars. He was so well-thought-of at the Southern Kartway at Loris, S.C., a memorial race is held each year in his memory.

Johnson passed away in 2011.

Hopefully, the Augusta International Raceway Preservation Society will consider this man for induction into its Hall of Fame



Dargan Watts‎ to Auto Racing In South Carolina
Writer, Race Promoter, South Carolina Racing Historian


Thanks so much, Dargan!



You Can See More of Dargan Watts Pages Here:

VINTAGE CARS and PARADES….https://www.facebook.com/groups/604801659614851/……
HISTORIC NORTH TURN BEACH PARADE…..https://www.facebook.com/NorthTurnBeachParade/

Comments

  1. Oh how this is such a small world. I was born and raised in Myrtle Beach. My daddy was a master mechanic. The dirt track at Myrtle Beach is such a fond memory of my childhood. He worked on some of the racers cars. Do not remember who. But I do remember watching and people talking about Jr. Johnson. What I also remember in the deep recesses of my memory is a sense of humor he had. A fun loving person. I hope I am remembering correctly. I had the chance of riding around the track with my mama and my aunt. My uncle was working there for some reason, don’t know what. I was sitting in the middle of the truck and my aunt asks if we wanted to go around the track. Of course the answer was yes. The truck took those curves like it should have and my aunt was no slouch on the gas pedal.😁 Thank you and Mr. Darden for bringing back those memories.

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    1. Oh Norma it is a small world! Sounds like you really did have a great time there!
      Yes he was that. Thanks for sharing your racing memories with us too! That is so cool!
      Sadly they've had the last race at that track recently. Things sure change.
      Dolly

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  2. Spelled his name wrong. I apologize. Fingers and brain does not work as well as they should.

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